Posts Tagged ‘Anne Rice’

Dry Spell

DessicationI am in between writing projects and I am unsure whether another story will ever consume me. I know some writers have a list of ideas for potential projects always sitting on the back burner. Sadly, I have exhausted my list just as I have exhausted items on my bucket list.  When I told a doctor that I had done everything on my bucket list, he suggested I compile a new list of things I wanted to do before I die.

I could transfer the doctor’s idea to my current dilemma, but my problem runs deeper than nothing on a writing to-do list. The real cause for disturbance is the lack of a burning conception that compels me to give it artistic shape–an idea that won’t let me sleep, and when I do sleep, inhabits my dreams. To work my way through this dry spell, I have turned to reading the works of prolific writers.  Joyce Carol Oates’s novels The Gravedigger’s Daughter and Middle Age: A Romance are better than Anne Rice’s recent offerings of Angel Time and Of Good and Evil, in which Rice’s troubled Toby O’Dare is whisked back into Renaissance times, first in England and than in Italy. Rice should have situated her story completely in the past and created a richer, denser fabric similar to what she accomplished years ago with Cry to Heaven and A Feast of All Saints.

I use reading to fire my own imagination.  While I appreciate the texture of Oates’ storytelling and I recognize the shortcomings of some of Rice’s supernatural narratives, reading their novels starts my mind churning. To force a project prematurely, I fear, is liable to result in a mediocre work or one inferior to an author’s previous work. Being prolific has its pitfalls. Great productivity doesn’t equate to works of equal greatness.

There are other methods to jump-start the creative juices. For instance, foreign travel, or maybe a hike, even a short walk off a long pier. Armchair tourism is good too. Watching an excellent film set in an equatorial jungle or in a Hungarian castle may stimulate the imagination.

So what to do?  Nothing. Simply, pass the dry spell sitting in the sun on the deck and searching the sky for signs of rain.  Or write this ditty about the dilemma:

Dry spells—empty wells—

writers sometimes have,

squeezing words, last drops

from a sponge; phrases

shrivel, dead on arrival.

 

Better to fold the arms,

look into the sky and wait

in silence for parched earth

to receive a cloud burst

when the ocean upends.

 

Better to read another’s book

and drink another’s draft,

whetting appetite for taste,

sound, smell, touch of print:

delicious rain of language

 

Better sit a spell and think

than to scratch at word-making

in dust and drought that leaves

readers hungrier than when

they begin the bland fare.

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Werewolves in the Redwoods

Canis_lupus_portraitThe creator of gripping genealogies for folkloric figures has recovered her gift in The Wolf Gift published in 2012. I was very much a fan of Anne Rice’s power to construct elaborate family trees for vampires and the Mayfair witches, but after Violin I felt her virtuosity wane in some rather weakly developed novels like Pandora and Vittorio, the Vampire. None of her novels after 1997 clicked with me. I attributed the thin gruel she was producing to the pressure of publishers for her to turn out a new book every year.

The significance of Rice’s work stems from her ability to write popular fiction that also treats of philosophical and spiritual issues troubling the human soul from time immemorial–death, grief, immortality, the existence of a deity, how that deity is perceived, good and evil, heaven and hell.  She does not shy away from literary allusions or references to intellectual history or works of art ancient and modern.

Similar to what Rice did in creating a comprehensive vampire mythology that humanizes the dreaded Transylvanian night stalker, she imagines in The Wolf Gift a psychological depth for the werewolf and gives a unique interpretation of the legend. Her wolf-man smells evil and leaps to rescue the victims of violent crime–an interesting twist with complex ramifications, one of which is the morality of killing the killer.

The descriptions are vivid, transporting me to the setting along the Pacific coast in northern California among the redwoods. I joyfully entered the werewolf world that others may find preposterous, gloriously suspending my disbelief to entertain the really important questions about God, evil and the hybrid nature of Homo sapiens.

Doubtless, Rice will offer us more romps with the werewolves.  She has already with this year’s follow-on– The Wolves of Midwinter.

Cats and Writing

The unobtrusive presence of a cat is conducive to writing. They respect the long periods of silence and intense concentration their owners require for composition. A cat has been an ever-present muse in my writing room. However, if neglect extends to not refilling her bowl for a long time, she will gently remind the writer by walking back and forth across the computer keyboard.

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

Molly, my rag dolly, born a cradle Mormon in Utah, converted to Catholicism upon my adoption 3/28/13

My long-held supposition that cats are the preferred pet of most writers needed evidence. I set out to test this hypothesis. Selecting authors I like, I began my research into whether they were also cat lovers.

The first writer I selected was Anne Rice. Lo and behold, she is the proud owner of a furry white cat. Next I selected Joyce Carol Oates. My suspicions were confirmed there too. She owns a lovely cat Cherie, the subject of her children’s book. With Daniel Halpern she edited the anthology The Sophisticated Cat: A Gathering of Stories, Poems and Miscellaneous Writings about Cats. Oates, one of the most prolific writers,  attributed her legendary productivity to cats, stating “I write so much because my cat sits on my lap. She purrs so I don’t want to get up.” May Sarton, best known for her journals, wrote twenty novels and seventeen poetry books. She lived with her cat Bramble by the sea in York, Maine. Her novel The Fur Person attests to her affinity with cats. I have written elsewhere how I regret that Sarton’s novels are not more widely read. Sarton said, “Time spent with cats is never wasted.” I have to concur.

Women writers may have a predictable proclivity for cats, but what about male writers?  Certainly, T.S. Eliot is well-known for his fondness for the feline as evidenced in his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, basis of the Broadway hit musical Cats.  I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a macho man like Ernest Hemingway owned twenty-three cats. I expected the avid hunter to be a diehard dog lover. On the contrary, he respected highly cats and is quoted as saying: “A cat has absolute emotional honesty: human beings, for one reason or another, may hide their feelings, but a cat does not.” Hemingway called cats “purr factories” and “love sponges.” Another prolific writer, Stephen King, is a cat owner whose cat Clovis fingered in his screenplay Sleepwalkers, continuing the role cats have played in his work since the unforgettable cat Church in Pet Sematary.  My delight was unbounded when I discovered that Neil Gaiman (I much admired his American Gods)  is the owner of not just one but several cats. The prolificness of these writers and the presence of cats in their lives must be correlated.

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

In Memoriam Nutmeg, my beloved calico 1998-2013

Clearly, cats have served both as muse for writers and as characters in their writings. I have also used them in my work, first in the creation of Odette, the Persian cat in my novel Gerontion and the Maiden. She is the pet of main female character Felicia, a young ambitious woman who marries a rich, much older man for security. I have Felicia give this analysis of the cat’s personality:

The cat slinked into her lap and she stroked Odette’s long cream-colored coat. The pudgy feline purred smoothly like a fine-tuned motor in a just audible murmur. Felicia appreciated the cat’s satisfaction, poise and control—qualities she not only admired in animals but also in people. Not surprising cats were revered as sacred in some ancient cultures. Unlike the slobbering manner of dogs, they carried themselves with considerable dignity. And in their fashion faithful. They demanded affection without cloying, and in return, conferred respect. Odette required space in the same way Felicia set parameters on friendships.

Now as the Persian nestled against her stomach and accepted her attention, Felicia appreciated once more her pet’s uncanny intelligence. Odette understood her moods, only imposing her presence when she knew her mistress was completely relaxed, taking the cue from Felicia’s position curled up on the sofa with the tea cup. Her habits were imprinted on the cat’s brain. At the appointed time she awaited Felicia’s arrival home from work, poised upon the windowsill watching for her. When it was time for bed, all Felicia needed to do was whistle and Odette leapt into bed, settling into the small of her back as she lay on her stomach. The cat’s eyes shone like runway lights, guiding Felicia to the bathroom at night. Understandable that men preferred dogs. A good match, the dog governed by a need to serve and man to receive undivided attention. But woman desired a clean, unobtrusive, undemanding but comfortable companion, or at least, Felicia was one woman who did.

“Odette, sweetheart, you’re woman’s best friend,” she murmured to the contented feline. “More stable and kind than either a man or a woman. I don’t get your cast-off toms, do I?”

Cats assume a major role in my novel Delayed Reaction.  The hero in the novel owns seven cats. Jake, an aging Vietnam veteran, names them for key players during that period of American history: Ho Chin Minh, a grey-pointed Siamese; Madame Nhu, a fluffy, cream-colored Persian; Melvin Lard Butt, a black Manx; Kiss-Ass Kissinger, a tortoise-shell with white patch over one eye; Miss Saigon, a tawny Burmese with black paws; Wacky-Macky McNamara, an orange tabby; and Buddha, a three-legged grey tiger.  Cats are the catalyst for a drastic change in Jake’s outlook on life and trigger a series of events in which he becomes the mentor and friend to a teenaged boy.

Cats have traits that account for this compatibility with the writing life and writers’ fondness for them. They are solitary, independent creatures just like their owners. They are discriminating and do not suffer fools gladly, preferring to isolate themselves instead of socializing with nincompoops. Prolific writers are ones who are content to spend long hours alone. Solitude does not bother them. In school writers are rarely voted most popular. Popularity is not their goal nor is a cat concerned if it is liked or disliked. If anything a cat likes to rub against the leg of a person who dislikes him. Similarly, a writer will not shy from offending those of contrary opinions or debunking the majority viewpoint for the sake of opening up a larger vision of the world. Cats are nonchalant.  Cats are low maintenance. They have dignity and a quiet intelligence. Their respect must be gained. The fawning, licking, rambunctiousness, yapping and sycophancy of dogs are not conducive to the writing life or the typical writer’s personality.  A cat, I conclude, is the pet that prolific writers pick for company in the solitary art of writing.  Molly has been curled up on my desk while I wrote this disquisition on cats and writing. I’ll sign off with a long mee-ee-ee-ow-ow-ow.

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer's Desk

Muse and Rag Dolly Molly on Writer’s Desk

Aversion to Categorization

The publishing industry and the marketing of books depend on categorization. Retailers need to know where to shelf books, and marketers help stores decide in what section to place the books. That is fairly easy to do with genre fiction like romance, science-fiction, fantasy, mystery, and murder. But some books defy categorization and it seems to me these are probably the most enduring books. They defy pigeonholing, because they often encompass the intertwining of several elements: a murder mystery, a detective story, horror, the fantastical, and the ever-present romance. Because they are not just one thing, these books offer so much more for the reader to digest and to enjoy. Sometimes even within the genres, things can get messy; debate can arise whether a book should be categorized as horror, thriller, murder, or suspense.

Writing gurus, prolix in offering advice, recommend that fledgling writers stick to a strict genre because their chances of selling their work will increase. That is true, making it possible to label your work as this or that in a query letter and easier for an agent to sell. Yet other works are not so easy to classify, because their depth, breadth and range do not neatly fit into a category. When this happens, a bookstore could shelve the book in the catch-all aisle of literary fiction, which in my estimation, is not a bad place to be. To declare your work literary may strike you as pompous. If so, you can describe your novel as contemporary or general fiction.

I don’t like the labeling of people as this or that any more than I like the necessity to categorize books.  My aversion likely accounts for the fact that I do not read a lot of straight genre fiction. As in food, I prefer the exotic dish, the new, the unique, the unheard of, the unread of before, the strange bird, the oddball in the room.  This is not to denigrate genre fiction. I love Anne Rice’s vampire chronicles and her Mayfair witches. I have read three books of Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time fantasy series and enjoyed them. I love Stephen King’s horror novels. I admire the way King crafts his sentences.  There are fine genre writers. I am married to a science fiction novelist, and I respect the imagination and knowledge that goes into constructing a futuristic scenario.  The fact that  I write novels that I can’t categorize (although some I can categorize as historical fiction) explains my aversion to categorization.  My husband, on the other hand,  indisputably writes genre fiction. Despite these divergences, we blissfully co-exist, read each other’s work, and cross-critique our manuscripts. The arrangement has worked well nigh unto the sixteen years of our marriage.

So it boils down to writing the books you want to write, to telling the story you want to write, regardless whether you can stuff the book into a marketing category. And, well, if the book fits in a marketing category, that’s terrific.  I for one like the hybrid; someone else likes the pure strain.  Everyone benefits from the infinite variety of genre and of style in the world.  File me under Miscellaneous? Sure. I won’t be offended.